“All men who come here live but a part of the truth; tomorrow will not be the same as today. The true reality of this land is change. The snowflake melts. Mountains crumble.” –John Milton, “Nameless Valleys, Shining Mountains”
It is truly awe-inspiring to see a glacier, and even more unreal to stand on one. I don’t know exactly why, but it got me. Maybe it’s because, for the first time, I was seeing with my eyes how earth as we know it formed. Standing at its terminus, I could feel the process and it was alive and loud and powerful and beautiful and as old as old can get.
All my life, all our lives, we experience the results of glaciers — lakes, valleys, polished rocks, striated rocks, precarious boulders on the sides of mountains or that stray one in a field — and they speak to us about a process that has come and gone. Maybe you’ve passed a brown sign on the highway that says “something-Moraine State Park” or “Drumlin Trail”? All are words that describe what glaciers have left — ridges and hills.
Even now, I’m sitting here in an armchair overlooking a rainy day on Lake George, a lake formed on the edge of the Adirondacks by the Laurentian Glacier a very long time ago. Here, I grew up learning that words like “kettle” are for the deep holes found in rocks where glacial water dripped, dripped, dripped for years. (Probably my first unsuccessful attempt to fully grasp time. Something can drip and make…a hole…in a rock?) The Native Americans back in the day would ingeniously fill these kettles with wood to cook: a natural fire pit. Nowadays, The Kettles is a restaurant up the street and I’m not sure most people get the name.*
That’s why seeing real, live, breathing glaciers in Alaska left such a big impression on me: I’ve been living at the end of the story and finally got to go to the beginning. I feel more complete for it.
Here’s a tour through what I saw…
First sighting: my second day in Alaska on a hike with friends halfway up Pioneer Peak. Needless to say, I was giddy.
Second sighting: Matanuska Glacier, off the Glenn Highway. Unfortunately, the access point to it is on private land so you have to pay ($20) to see it close up. Fortunately, it was well worth it!
Matanuska Glacier begins at the top of a mountain 27 miles away from where I was standing. The rocks you see mixed in with the ice are there because, as the glacier moves over bedrock, it lifts blocks of rock out and carries them with it. This process is called “plucking.”
On the way in, we reached a sign that said not to pass unless you were with a guide. My friend Skander was with me and happens to know a thing or two about glacier travel so we figured it was okay to go exploring.
Here I am on the glacier with meltwater streaming behind me. It looks like I’m standing on rocky ground but it’s ice (when you get really close, you can see all the tiny rock particles in it — nature at work).
And here is what that meltwater sounds like (it is loud!):
One thing, besides crevasses, that you have to watch out for are “moulins.” These things are just what they sound like: giant watery graves. They carry the meltwater from the surface of a glacier down deep to its base. (You may want to skip this water slide, kids.)
These are just pieces of a fascinating system in a process that starts with snow and hundreds, even thousands, of years later producing the blue glacial ice that we recognize. (Blue because the ice is so compressed it has very little air in it and so it absorbs more red in the spectrum and bounces blue back to us. It’s the same reason the sky is blue on really clear days.) Check out this website for more trusted info on how this stuff works.
I may not be able to explain it all perfectly but I can show you! Here’s what it looks like to stand on a glacier (called “dry” because it doesn’t have any snow accumulation on it) and look around:
T’was an awesome second sighting. And, there’s more!
Third sighting: Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park. Like the Matanuska one, you could also walk up to its terminus. The added bonus? The 3.7 mile Harding Icefield Trail that runs up the mountain alongside the glacier. You gain 1000 feet in elevation every mile but the top offers a full view of the 300 square mile icefield. It is one of the four remaining icefields in the U.S. and the largest. One local told me, “it’s as impressive — if not more — than the Grand Canyon.” Unfortunately bad weather hit about 3/4 of the way up so between that, and a low battery in the camera from the start, I don’t have this spectacular view to show you. Another day, perhaps!
There’s also, I’m sorry to say, a more sobering thing to share about this glacier. At the end of the hike, I went to check out that terminus and found myself standing in places that were covered by the glacier in 2006 and straining to see where it was today. Not 1986; 2006. A year I well remember in detail. The fact that that glacier has moved that far in five years is alarming. Bill McKibben wrote in a 1997 essay, “Maybe We Should Call It Something Scarier,” that the name ‘global warming’ doesn’t do justice to what we are doing to our earth. It’s more like total rapid inferno.
Fourth sighting: Aialik Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park. While also fed by the Harding Icefield, this glacier differs from Exit Glacier because it terminates in the ocean with big impressive shows of calving and ice bergs. I got to see both from a kayak (thanks to Jamie and the awesome crew at Kayak Adventures Worldwide for the day out). The calving is truly an awesome sight, especially from water level. Big sheets of ice, sometimes as large as 200 feet, break off from the glacier with a boom and fall into the sea. You have to remain about a half-mile back in your kayak so that the waves don’t rock you over. (It seemed like the nearby sea otters knew to hang back too.)
The biggest thought though from seeing this glacier is just how impossible it is to take in. I thought I had a handle on the scale as we started to paddle but, as we drew closer and the glacier remained distant, I knew I was staring at the equivalent of a mountain.
Final sighting: a tidewater glacier seen from the air flying back to Chicago. I don’t know where it was or what it was called. It’s just one of the many thousand out there in Alaska — you know, doing its thing. I can tell you this though: it made for an awesome “see you later.”
Tomorrow the sun is supposed to come out and I’ll be able to see across the lake all the way to the Green Mountains in Vermont (and they really need the sunshine right now). It will be fun to look out and see what traces, what movements, I can spot of that long ago glacier. And although I can’t fully comprehend the time it took to make all that I see, I can now know a little bit more about that beginning, what the changes sounded like, and how it felt to stand among it.
*Note: on further investigation (ahem, Wikipedia) it appears I, and this region, might be slightly misinformed about what qualifies as a “kettle.” But I have not found the right word for a deep hole formed by glacial water in a rock so am sticking with kettle for now.